Cooper visited the school in 2018 and said he regretted not being able to earn his diploma when he was there in 1934-1938.
Merrill Pittman Cooper received his high school diploma after a staggering 80 years. Cooper is now 101-years-old but saw one of his biggest dreams come true. He had attended Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, from 1934 to 1938 in segregated America but was forced to drop out during his senior year when his family moved to Philadelphia due to financial reasons. He had visited the school in 2018 and said he regretted not being able to get the diploma. His family decided to contact some officials to see if there was anything they could do about it. Jefferson County Schools, the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, the Storer College National Alumni Association and the West Virginia Department of Education joined hands to award Cooper a high school diploma to make his dream come true. “I never imagined that anything like this could happen,” said Cooper, reported The Washington Post.
Storer College was established in 1865 to serve newly freed slaves shortly after the Civil War, according to the US National Park Service. The school would be the only source of education for Black residents in West Virginia. The school eventually closed in the 1950s after serving more than 7,000 students. Cooper studied Latin, biology, history, English, and mathematics at the college during his time there. Since the school has been closed, it's become a part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. After dropping out of college, Cooper would go on to have a successful career in the transportation industry.
Cooper told his family how hard it was for a Black man to get an education in those times. It didn't make it any easier that he was being raised by a single parent. His mother worked as a live-in housekeeper to pay for his tuition and board at Storer College. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but it was my dream to become an attorney,” said Cooper, who recalled some of his teachers buying him new school clothes and shoes. “They knew I couldn’t afford it, so they’d take me downtown, then tell me not to tell the rest of the students,” he said. “The school had mostly Black teachers, and they looked out for me.” Cooper realized his mother couldn't make the money needed for the final tuition payment for his senior year. They moved to Philadelphia where she had a family. "She worked so hard, and it all became so difficult that I just decided it would be best to give up continuing at the school,” he said.
It was Cooper's son-in-law Rod Beckerink who contacted the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the Jefferson School District to set up a surprise ceremony at the Hyatt Regency in Jersey City. Cooper was under the assumption someone was interviewing him about his long life until they revealed the real reason and he was overcome with emotion. Cooper donned the burgundy cap and gown, and a virtual ceremony was organized in the hotel room. Cooper was given his diploma by Jefferson County Schools superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson-Learn, who traveled from West Virginia just for this. “I can’t think of a happier day,” said Cooper.
"Jefferson County Schools is committed to helping every student, young or old, fulfill their dreams," said Bondy Shay Gibson-Learn, the school system's superintendent. "For Mr. Cooper, that meant receiving a high school diploma. We are honored to help make that dream a reality." Cooper married Marion Karpeh, a single mom of three children after dating her for 14 years. Karpeh passed away in 2015. “My sister and brother and I were impressed as young people that [Merrill] had such a command of literature and was such a great orator,” said Beckerink, 63. “He was constantly quoting famous orators like Kennedy or King."